In March 2015, Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint will open at the Wallace Collection, providing a fresh perspective on a towering figure of British painting. Yet how well do we really know Joshua Reynolds? Over a series of blog posts Mark Hallett, Director of Studies at the Paul Mellon Centre and co-curator of the exhibition, will provide an introduction to the artist and his highly experimental pictures.
Our visual culture is saturated with portraits. Phones are clogged with selfies. Millions of Facebook profiles are tweaked and changed every day. Newspaper pages are dominated by the portraits of politicians and terrorists, models and musicians, sports stars and columnists. Our purses, wallets and pockets spill out portraits – visual and digital, engraved and electronic – on a daily basis.
An especially familiar encounter with portraiture, of course, is that which takes place each time we stroll through the magazine section of a supermarket. Their crowded shelves of glossy covers can be appreciated as ephemeral portrait galleries, endlessly recycling the airbrushed faces of celebrities, and characterised in particular by the reproduced image of the white female face.
This kind of encounter – and the proliferation of portraiture that it expresses – is not quite as new as we might think. In 1765, the fictional narrator of a fascinating satirical publication called The Chinese Spy, purportedly written by an emissary from the court of Peking, describes how he had discovered an especially desirable type of portraiture on display in the London print shops of the period. This took the form of engraved portraits of women whom the writer calls ‘the most celebrated English beauties’. He notes that the collections of such prints for sale provided ‘a complete set of charms, graces, and allurements’ and reports that this category of engraving encompassed both ‘ladies of pleasure’- that is, prostitutes and courtesans – and also ‘ladies of quality’. He proceeds to list his purchases from the shop: ‘I bought the following, which were all in a string: Fanny Murray, Lady Berkeley, Kitty Fisher, Lady Fortescue, Charlotte Fisch, Lady Waldegrave, Nancy Dawson, Lady Barrington, Nelly O’Brien, the Dutchess of Ancaster’
For this blog, I thought it might be interesting to use the wonders of the British Museum’s online catalogue of prints and drawings to try and reconstruct the ‘string’ of portraits supposedly purchased by the ‘Chinese Spy’ in 1765. Many reproduce the works of Joshua Reynolds, the subject of our forthcoming exhibition. As we hope to demonstrate in our display and accompanying catalogue, and as was explored in fascinating detail in another modern exhibition devoted to the artist, Joshua Reynolds: the Creation of Celebrity (curated at Tate Britain in 2005 by my Mellon Centre colleague Martin Postle), Reynolds was exceptionally well attuned to the possibilities of using prints – particularly of well-known sitters – to advertise his experimental forms of practice. The ‘string of portraits’ gathered up by the ‘Chinese Spy’ amply confirms quite how successful he was in this regard, and how much of his appeal rested upon his ability to produce alluring and subtly varied images of those women, both notorious and respectable, who – in a haunting echo of our own obsession with celebrity – were described by the Spy as the ‘most celebrated’ beauties of their age.
So, here goes. I think the series of ten prints bought by this fictional Chinese visitor was in all probability identical with, or very like, the following:
An intriguing gallery of portraits, I hope you agree. It is one rendered even more interesting by the fact that its rhythms see the images of disreputable or ‘colourful’ sitters – Murray (print 1), Fisher (3), Fish (5), Dawson (7) and O’Brien (9), all courtesans or actresses – alternating with those depicting the genteel – Lady Berkeley (2), Lady Fortescue (4), Lady Waldegrave (6), Lady Barrington (8) and the Duchess of Ancaster (10).
I am also happy to report that two of the painted models for the above prints – those of O’Brien and Fisher – will be on display in Joshua Reynolds: Experiments in Paint, where they will form part of another, far more modern, string of images. Please come and spy on them when the exhibition opens.
By Mark Hallett.
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